The field of psychiatry and neurology are rapidly changing. The revolution in research brought about by the discovery of non-invasive means of looking inside the brain has resulted in a rediscovery of the fundamental truth that the serious mental illnesses are the result of genetic, chemical, electrical, structural, or traumatic problems in the brain. More and more, we are discovering that Alzheimer's Disease, Tourette Syndrome, Seizure Disorders, Schizophrenia, Anxiety Disorders, and Depression are brain illnesses and deserve equivalent levels of treatment and compassion.
But, because we cannot know about nor provide information about all brain illnesses and traumas, we are especially concerned about Anxiety and Panic Disorders, Bipolar Disorder, Severe Depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Schizophrenia which are among the most devastating of the brain illnesses and about which there is still great misunderstanding and prejudice.
While other brain illnesses--from Alzheimer's to Seizure Disorder--can be equally debilitating, we find that the illnesses we are most concerned about continue to need our especial care and concern because of the misconceptions, discrimination, and potential for destruction that are involved in having or loving someone who has one of these five categories of brain illness.
Affective disorders are the most common groupings of psychiatric disorders. The primary symptom is that of changed affect or mood. These mood disorders may be manic-depressive illness (bipolar), in which the person swings between extreme high and low moods, or severe depression (unipolar) in which the person has persistent low moods. This happens when there is a disruption in normal brain processing. The most common affective disorder is depression. Some sources differentiate between reactive depression (in reaction to some traumatic life event) and endogenous depression (no apparent precipitating factor). Recent research suggests that all depressive symptoms may be triggered by the body's response to external events. Depression is most apt to strike people in the prime of life--ages 25 to 44, but can affect people of any age. With appropriate treatment, 80% of people with depression improve.
The medical cause is due to a chemical imbalance or structural changes in the brain. Research points to a genetic predisposition, as well as cultural, environmental and psychological factors. Schizophrenia generall occurs between the ages of 17 and 30, and rarely after age 45. People with schizophrenia do not have a "split personality." People experiencing an acute episode of schizophrenia have a sudden onset of severe psychotic symptoms, i.e. they are out of touch with reality, or unable to separate real from unreal experience. They can experience periods of a distorted sense of reality or ability to think, and also hallucinations and delusions. People with schizophrenia somtimes exhibit an emotion that is inconsistent with their speech or thoughts. They may show "blunted" or "flat" affect, i.e., a severe inability to express any emotion. While medications can usually control the most flamboyant symptoms of schizophrenia, none can cure it. People who have this illness benefit from a combination of medications and a variety of programs and therapies. One third of all people in treatment will recover completely. One third will improve, needing only occasional hospitalization. One third have long-term, recurring schizophrenic episodes requiring hospitalization.
When apprehension and tensions interfere with a person coping effectively with family, job, school or other demands of daily life, the condition must be regarded as a serious psychiatric disorder and should be treated as such. The group of illnesses includes phobias, panic disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Anxiety disorders often manifest themselves through such physical symptoms as excessive perspiration, shortness of breath, palpitations and rapid heart beats, dizziness, tension headache, and many other accelerated or slowed-down body functions. Probably no single situation or condition causes anxiety disorders. Rather, physical and environmental triggers often combine to create a particular anxiety illness. Medication, behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, or combinations are used to treat anxiety disorders.
Phobias range from simple phobias such as fear of specific objects or situations (fear of snakes or flying or of closed spaces) to agoraphobia, the fear of being alone in a public place where there is no escape (fear of being on a bus or in a crowded store). Panic disorders involve recurrent attacks of panic or anxiety. Obsessive-compulsive disorders can result in ritualistic behavior involving cleanlinesss resulting in showering or washing hands excessively each day; repeating word patterns; overwhelming concerns about being meticulous; hoarding seemingly useless items which are repeatedly counted and stacked; or performing a series of complicated steps in an exact order or repeating them over and over again until the steps are done perfectly. Currently, researchers are exporing the linkages and differences between obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression.
Dementias cause loss of intellectual abilities, especially memory and personality changes. Sibtle changes such as memory loss of recent events are seen first, with more dramatic memory loss following; e.g., names of old friends or relatives are forgotten. Alzhemier's disease, which affects 15% of people over age 65, is included in this classification.
Loss of nerve cells and brain atrophy are responsible for many of the dementias. A series of small strokes, over a period of time, can also result in symptoms of dementia. Genetics seems to be a predisposing factor. In recent years, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) has also become recognized as a cause for progressive dementia.
There are no well-established plans for treatment of dementias. Medications such as the antipsychotic and antidepressants are given to counter such symptoms as irritability, agitation, suspicion and depression. Socialization programs and activity therapy are helpful for many who suffer from dementia.